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The comfort of restaurants

Pardon me as I depart from the regular mission of this blog to share a story close to my heart (and home). My neighborhood was the site of a plane crash yesterday. A small single-engine plane crashed into the parking lot of a bank branch during the 5 p.m. rush hour in a densely populated residential area. It was next to a main thoroughfare lined with more than two dozen popular chain restaurants just gearing up for the dinner crowd. Tragically, the plane's pilot and passenger died. Miraculously, no one on the ground was injured.

As I threaded my way down the street to my house (just two blocks away and unharmed) yesterday evening, I passed scores of emergency vehicles and lookers-on lining the sidewalk across the street from the crash site. I couldn't help but think, not only of the victims, but of the workers and customers who so narrowly skirted danger.

Just a few feet farther to one side and a frozen-custard shop, popular with families who walk over after dinner on warm fall evenings, would have been in the plane's fateful path. A couple yards in the other direction and three crowded chain restaurants across the street would have been the scene of something much more disastrous.

Instead, the patrons and workers in the nearby restaurants sprang into action. As one local website reported, the manager of that frozen-custard shop was one of several people who tried to help the pilot as he stumbled from the plane after impact and comforted him until paramedics arrived (the pilot later died from his injuries). Another man, a worker at a nearby fast-casual restaurant, described how two patrons at the restaurant having dinner also jumped up to aid the man.

Their actions are a reminder of the many times restaurants have, by chance, been called upon to dish out not just comfort food but comfort.

During the Boston Marathon bombings this past April, two managers from The Forum restaurant (whose cameras helped police identify the suspects) commandeered linens and ice from inside the restaurant to help treat the wounded patrons and spectators, many of whom were in shock. In the months since the bombing, the Boston Globe reports, the owners have been hosting sold-out fundraising dinners to raise money to help staff and other bombing victims injured in the blast.

In the days and months following Hurricane Sandy, restaurants across the country stepped up in a big way to help the victims—including restaurant operators and workers—with special offers that directed proceeds to the American Red Cross for every milkshake or cocktail or family-style meal purchased.

On countless other occasions, it's restaurants that have graciously fed volunteers and first responders and served as a makeshift headquarters for authorities tending to the victims and leading the investigations of such tragedies.

For sure, restaurant workers and customers aren't the only heroes; in yesterday's crash people from other businesses also rushed in to help the victims. But it's worth acknowledging when those in the business of “hospitality” are tested—as they too often are—and rise to the occasion, demonstrating a much greater meaning of the word.

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